Being a Christian is like being a pledge in a fraternity: just when you think you’ve done everything right, you discover you’re not even close.
Have you ever played a game you cannot win? Have you ever had a boss you could not please? Have you ever started a maze that could not be finished? There are two ways to go about it. If you’re trying to equate success with perfection, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re searching for a way to give it your best, there’s hope.
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is approached by a lawyer, who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. The exchange that follows is pretty standard stuff. What does the law say? Love God and love your neighbor? Good start. But then Luke tells us that the lawyer went one step too far. “Wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Luke’s is the only gospel account that gives us the parable of the good Samaritan. His is the only account that has this man trying to justify himself. Luke’s Jesus, therefore, cuts right to the heart and exposes what’s broken in all of us.
I like to do lists—not so much because I need them to keep me on track but because I get great delight in crossing off every single item. When I go grocery shopping, I carry a list AND a pen so that I can scratch through each item as it is thrown into the buggy. When I come to Jesus and ask what I must do to inherit eternal life, I want a detailed list of “to-dos” that I can cross off. But that isn’t how heaven works. It isn’t how the gospel works.
When I was a pledge in a fraternity, I tried so, so, so very hard to get things right. Every little detail was taken care of. Every request fulfilled. Every “I” dotted and “T” crossed. But it was never good enough. When you’re a pledge, you can’t make the older fraternity members happy. It just doesn’t work that way. The whole point is for me to learn that I haven’t earned a spot but that I’ve been chosen for one.
Now, there are lots of critical ways in which that analogy breaks down. For one, God isn’t mean-spirited and hypercritical like a pledge-trainer is. He’s gracious and loving. But, if you’re looking to cross everything off your list in order to make God love you, you’ll be disappointed. It doesn’t work that way. Instead, as Jesus suggests in his gut-wrenching parable, what matters is where your heart is. Does your heart belong to God? Does it belong to others? Are you giving yourself over to the kingdom as completely as possible? If so, what’s on the checklist doesn’t matter anymore. Asking Jesus, “What must I do…” is like asking, “How much should I love?” There is no end to that question. But love isn’t task-based. It doesn’t get a grade. You can’t cross it off your list of things to do. Love just is. And that’s what we are called to be.